Board approves first reading of ordinance updating language, practice around Community Involvement Committee

December 6, 2018

Dani Bernstein, Office of Community Involvement, (right) describes workgroup recommendations.
Multnomah County commissioners on Nov. 29 approved the first reading of an ordinance to update County code on the Community Involvement Committee, the Office of Community Involvement and the County’s Budget Advisory Committees.

The 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Loretta Smith dissenting, came five months after the Board directed the Office of Community Involvement to conduct a review of the County’s community involvement process. The review included establishing a workgroup to review County Code language and recommend changes, and designing a process to gather community advice on the role of the Community Involvement Committee (CIC).

The Board will conduct a second reading of the ordinance Dec. 13.

The CIC, one of about 40 County advisory boards, has been stalled over differences within the committee as well as between its members and County staff over roles, responsibilities and conduct.

After the committee was unable to conduct business, and after a mediator advised the County the committee could not overcome its differences, the Board in June voted to rescind all appointments. Commissioners also directed the Office of Community Involvement to clarify the language and practices that govern the group, based on community input.

On Thursday, Dani Bernstein, Executive Director of the Office, told the Board almost 300 people across the County provided input, either through surveys or attending one of five focus groups. The office also gathered input from Board staff, the County Attorney, and the County’s Chief Diversity and Equity Officer.

The input helped identify common themes and recommendations, Bernstein said. But it also highlighted the “different and sometimes competing ideas about the CIC and how it can be most effective.”

“In the report on our focus groups, our consultants noted that some participants felt that the CIC should oversee all other County advisory groups, while others felt the CIC is unnecessary and redundant,” Bernstein said. “So that’s one example of the broad spectrum of ideas and opinions in our community.”

“Our most recent group of CIC members disagreed with each other about role of the committee and expressed that there was a lack of clarity about its purpose,” Bernstein continued, “and the conflict over that and how it manifested is part of why we’re here today.’’

The workgroup recommended the following changes:

  • Replacing the word citizen with “community.’’

  • Keeping representation from each of the County’s four districts, but allowing for more at-large members. That way, members could continue to serve even if they move to another part of the County. That also would provide a way for people from underrepresented communities, identities and experiences, such as military veterans, to serve.

  • Removing the requirement that applicants be nominated by a community organization.

  • Clarifying language around how CIC appointments can be rescinded. The recommendations would give that authority to the Board, the Office of Community Involvement’s Executive Director (with approval from the Chief Diversity and Equity officer), and the CIC itself.

  • Clarifying the duties of the Committee so it serves as the County’s engagement-focused advisory body — advising on outreach and how the County reduces barriers to civic participation, and serving as a conduit for communication between the County and community.

  • Removing the requirement that the CIC submit written reports to the Board every six months — a duty not required for other advisory groups.

  • Keeping the CIC meetings public, and publishing notices and minutes, but not requiring it to follow Oregon law on public meetings. That would allow multiple members to attend other public hearings or community events without raising concerns about quorum requirements.

  • Changing the nominations process for the Central Budget Advisory Committee so that positions on those committees are no longer required to be nominated by a specific individual or group

“We wanted to create a broad lane for the CIC, outlining specific responsibilities but allowing the CIC to decide its areas of focus from there,” Bernstein said. “So for example, they could decide to study and make recommendations on East County engagement, or reducing barriers for immigrant and refugee communities, or how our public meetings can be most accessible.”

Commissioner Smith strongly objected to the ordinance, saying the CIC was meant to be “a watchdog of what goes on here. It was not meant to be a tea party and everybody get along.’’ She said former members were not adequately involved in the recommendations and that the changes “remove the teeth’’ of the CIC.

“I will not be supporting,” she said.

Answering questions from other Board members, Bernstein said each Commissioner’s office was invited to participate in the workgroup. Bernstein also said CIC members whose appointments were rescinded had been offered exit interviews and could take part in the general survey and several had also attended a focus group. The survey was posted in libraries, shared on County social media, and emailed to more than 1,300 community organizations, past and current volunteers and neighborhood associations.

Commissioner Sharon Meieran commented that the name is the Community Involvement Committee and asked if there was any mention of “Watchdog” in the County’s charter or code.

Bernstein said no.

Sherry Willmschen, one of the CIC members whose position was rescinded, testified that the proposed ordinance is based on “inadequate and insufficient input from the citizens.”

She was one of at least four former members who spoke in opposition. Willmschen objected to proposed changes in the committee’s size and nomination process, and the loss of community members’ ability to review applicants. “The process is not broken, and changes are not needed,’’ she said.

Former CIC members testify at the Board meeting.
Former CIC members testify to their concern.

Bernardino De La Torre-Guerrero, who introduced himself as the current chair of the CIC and the first Latino chair, urged the Board not to proceed. The CIC was created as an oversight group, he said, “because there was a lot of back door decisions being made by the of commissioners of the past and it appears to me presently that it is trying to back to the way it was, and in other words, trying to make Multnomah County great again.’’

He said that the process has been flawed and that he had only heard about a focus group at the last minute, and when he tried to share his opinion in a respectful fashion, he felt he was “treated very poorly’’ and walked out.

Commissioner Smith moved to postpone any action until the County completed an outside investigation into complaints that behavior among CIC volunteers violated County rules for respectful workplaces. Smith said the community should first have “a complete understanding of who was retaliated against and who was bullied, on both sides.”

The County launched that investigation earlier this year. But it’s been delayed because the investigator has had difficulty contacting members. In the meantime, some volunteers have filed counter-complaints and a lawsuit against the County.

Smith’s motion failed for lack of a second.

Commissioner Meieran said she supported moving forward after spending “many hours investigating the situation and examining it from all perspectives.’’

She said she reviewed numerous emails to and from committee members and staff, listened to recordings of multiple meetings, reviewed the County Attorney’s opinion and the opinion of outside counsel who provided the opinion to members, and the opinions of one outside facilitator and the outside mediation consultant specializing in conflict resolution who said the situation was untenable.

“Most importantly, I personally reached out and spoke with every member of the CIC who was available to speak with me,” she said.

Meieran said she learned people had been traumatized and couldn't work together, and she decided the Board needed to ensure the committee is a place where “everyone’s voice is respected, independence is valued and there are clear guidelines to ensure there is a safe space for everyone participating.’’

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said, “for me, any kind of investigation had absolutely nothing to do with what we’re doing to date. At this point, we don’t have a CIC and we need to make sure we’re taking steps to bring that back… so they can participate in the upcoming budget cycle.’’

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said the Board has a duty to protect County employees and volunteers.

“This evolved into something personal, and for that, I am truly sorry,” she said. “But there are multiple reasons we need to make these changes. We are not a perfect board. But I do believe we are all striving to do the best for the citizens and for our community, and so I will be supporting today’s ordinance.”

The second reading will be Thursday, Dec. 13, during the regular board meeting at the Multnomah Building Boardroom, 501 SE Hawthorne Blvd., in Portland.